Read The Ginger Tree Online

Authors: Oswald Wynd

The Ginger Tree (9 page)

Soon I must raise the question of the furnishings of this house with Richard because we cannot continue living in it as it is with the things left by his Germans. I am not surprised they were glad to get a hundred and twenty pounds, I wouldn’t have given them fifty. I can’t seem to open the question of money with Richard, though this must come soon and an understanding be reached. So far he has paid all the bills and given me nothing. Not that I expected an allowance from him and so on at this stage, but he must surely know that I cannot go on indefinitely on what
Mama gave me for travel? I think he is a man who will always be careful with money. I have certainly never seen him being free and easy with it, he carries his silver and copper coins in a purse. One of my cousins now living in Dundee always does this, too, and is quite mean, his wife an object of pity within the family.

It is really strange to be in my first home as a wife and not have much idea how things are run. It would seem that Richard gets a rough idea of what our meals are to be from the cook, and he says I am to put any suggestions I have through him, but I have no idea what the cook’s capabilities are. Since we came here we seem to have been eating nothing but chicken, no doubt the cheapest meat in the market. I can’t go to the market myself, not because this is forbidden to European ladies, but because there is a system of cheating on household accounts that has long been accepted by all, which Richard says is not really cheating in the usual sense, in that it is a sort of ten per cent tip on everything to the cook or houseboy who does the buying. I am told that there is no point in expecting European ideas of honesty because you won’t get it, so that you might as well keep wages as low as possible and just accept the unseen commission. This principle applies in the Legation Quarter too, of course, where Sir Claude’s cook takes twenty per cent because it is the house of a Minister.

Richard says that Yao even gets his commission from the ricksha coolies who charge us more than the fare for natives and then pay the houseboy, who summons them, the difference. Apparently if I were to take him shopping with me as a translator he would get a commission from every place I went into, whether I bought anything or not. In all this talk Richard and I came very near to discussing the money situation between ourselves, but still did not. I feel he is constantly shying away from the subject. This means, of course, that I cannot do anything about the house until I know where we stand and what I might spend. I have no idea what his salary is and whether or not this is supplemented by an income from his family in Norfolk.

I must
something soon. I cannot go on sitting here writing letters or talking to paper as I do in these notebooks.

Letter from Mary Mackenzie to her mother

The House of the Dragon Screen
157 Hutung Feng-huang, Peking, China
March 29th, 1903

Dearest Mama – I cannot believe that it is more than two weeks since I last wrote to you and promised a description of this house. First, you must not put ‘The House of the Dragon Screen’ on your envelopes; that is not official. To be quite honest it is just a name I started using because I thought it sounded good on a letter to Margaret Blair. The house really has no name, even though it did belong to the high official who lost his head. It is approached down the narrow lane and has a high wall above a drainage ditch. Poor Richard, when we came here from the wedding reception and he wanted everything to seem just right, there was a huge heap of dumped rubbish in the drain, including a dead kitten. I pretended I had not seen it, but he knew I had.

The gate itself is pretty, with a tiled roof that has a charming curved line. The gates are wide enough (double) to let a carriage through, but are never opened, you go through a smaller door in one that is like a hatch. The woodwork was once bright red, now much faded. The first thing you see inside is our dragon screen, about eight feet high, of stone, on which the dragon’s tail starts up in one corner with body and clawed feet seeming to crawl down it to the bottom through an intricate pattern of carved flowers and leaves. It really was put there to keep out devils because in China devils cannot go around corners so if they come in from the outside world with you that screen stops them. You will think I am living in a really heathen country when I tell you that I am sure our houseboy holds the little hatch door open for half a minute after we have come through it in order to make sure that the thwarted devils have a chance to get out again. I haven’t said anything about this to Richard who seems to have little sympathy for Chinese superstitions, only believing in English ones, like the ghost at Mannington. You must not think me flippant if I say I think I would prefer Chinese devils to a Mannington headless lady.

Inside I am afraid the house is not what I would like, though it has possibilities. You cross a paved courtyard beyond the screen in which are large ornamental rocks and nothing else, at least in winter. There is a narrow porch, then the front hall, this large and square, with the
on one side and the huge drawing-room on the other. The less said the better about the furnishings: a man’s choice I have no intention of putting up with for long. There are eleven bedrooms, though only two furnished at the moment. Heating is by coal stoves. There is no real garden to this house as such, just a series of courtyards with earth in them and nothing else except two porcelain seats in one, the kind you
see in Edinburgh front halls that have been brought from China. The servants have houses built against the outer wall on the kitchen side, and though I haven’t seen into them I believe they have two rooms each. The cook and his wife have three children (I have never seen Mrs Cook) and the handyman and his wife also have three, so you will see that I am not alone inside these walls when Richard is away, though the whole place sprawls so much I rarely hear a sound from children’s voices or anything like that. There is no back gate, everyone must come by the devil screen, including tradesmen, though there are not many of them, things mostly bought at market and carried home by our servants. There is a ricksha stance not far away from our gate so that we can always have this conveyance available, indeed there is no other in Peking except palanquins, and I don’t really see myself being carried in one of those. The ricksha coolies sit waiting day and night in a little hut which has a charcoal brazier in front of it. I don’t think it is a healthy life, for the man I always get has terrible bouts of coughing sometimes. However, rickshas and their pullers are just accepted as a necessity of life.

I wonder if I will ever get used to the beggars? There is nothing to fear, really, for they do not approach you, just sit by the ditches, bundles of dirty rags, sometimes silent and motionless, but more often swaying and muttering what sounds like an incantation, though perhaps it is a prayer for alms. I have been told not to notice them, and have never really been in a position to give them anything, passing in a ricksha and so on, but when the opportunity arises I will give some money. What their living
must be like I cannot imagine. In China life is cheap. This is something you feel very sharply very soon. For many just to be able to exist seems a privilege.

If this makes you want to give to foreign missions at church, do so, but as yet I have seen nothing of the work of missionaries. There seems to be little contact between them and the diplomatic services. I would think that only a very brave person could be a missionary in China, for so many of them were killed by the Boxers in remote places. It must be hard to try to love people you know would murder you if there was a change in the wind.

Dearest Mama – I hope this has not been a depressing letter. I am still getting used to many strange things and seeing them yet with raw eyes. In time I am sure I will not notice. Remember me to Jessie and Cook. Tell them that no Chinese servants could ever make such a comfortable, warm home as they do.

All my love to you,


The House of the Dragon Screen, Peking
April 2nd, 1903

I have just had Marie here almost all afternoon, our first visitor, who came without sending a chitty first to say to expect her. She did not think much of this house, though pretending to for my sake, saying that our dragon screen was the best she had seen, but on the threshold of the drawing-room exclaimed, as though she could not stop herself:
‘Dieu! Un wagon de chemin de fer!’
I know what she means, the room is like an
railway carriage, long and quite narrow, and with windows down both sides facing each other, one set looking on to the front court rocks, the other on to an inner court that is quite empty. When Richard opened the door to this room for me for the first time I could scarcely conceal dismay. The furniture left by the German couple is quite dreadful and the huge stove on its zinc base hideous, even if it is a good heater.

Marie was very gay about the stove. She said that it defeats the mind to
imagine anyone importing such a thing from Europe, and that it must have been set dead centre in the hold of the ship that brought it, otherwise it would have caused a list that could have been quite fatal in a typhoon. She believes that since the stove reached China it must not be neglected, but featured in our room, though on a new base of pale green tiles she knows where to get. According to her, that stove could do wonderful work as a social ice-breaker, and redecoration and refurnishing should seem to be completely deferential to the monster, everything else in exquisite good taste to point up the joke. She was quite sure that soft green is the colour I want, starting with specially woven Tientsin carpet, the curtains to be hand-woven brocade. Richard would be horrified by the estimates for what Marie thinks is necessary.

She insisted on seeing the whole house before tea was brought in, though with so many empty rooms the tour did not take long. Marie tested the mattress in my room and said that the hardness might not matter now but it soon would. I think I prefer the way Mrs Brinkhill dealt with delicate matters, head on, not flirting with them. Richard’s room seemed a total surprise to her, perhaps because it is almost entirely furnished with his regimental officer’s equipment, folding camp bed, canvas washing basin and chair, plus a card table pushed against one wall, a small hanging mirror above it. There are no curtains at the window, which is of a Chinese lattice type opening in, and no stove either, the hole for the pipe blocked up. Though the weather has been bitter since we came here he sleeps with his window open always, the draught swirling down the passage to me. Marie said who would have believed the beautiful Richard was at heart an ascetic? I said nothing.

Yao’s shaking hands set the teacups rattling as he carried in the tray and Marie thinks he has some disease of the nerves which would make it foolish of us to keep him because there is no greater nuisance in China than unwell servants who feel they have a family claim on you. If we got rid of him quickly he would not have any right to feel this. Her advice may be sound enough but already I have a kind of affection for Yao.

The cakes were not very good and Marie asked about our cook. I had to tell her that I have had practically no dealings with the man and had
only been in the kitchen twice, and that really only to look in from the door. Somewhat to my surprise she did not approve of this. Having seen her in her boudoir, I would have thought that kitchens would be the last thing to interest her, but it must be her French instincts, for she insists on going down to prepare certain sauces and even some dishes from family recipes which she says she is not giving to any cook, so while she is there he is not even permitted to watch. Also, she taught the man how to make proper bread. She could not stand what she calls Peking bread, of the kind I had at the Hardings’ and have here, too, which tastes as though the dough had been artificially soured during the kneading. Before the Boxer Troubles there was a good French bakery in Peking, but that has not opened again. Another thing that Marie says I must insist on is seeing that all salad ingredients are immersed in a solution of potassium
before serving and this will
be done in a Chinese-managed kitchen unless it is made quite clear that instant dismissal will result from any failure to observe this rule. From untreated raw vegetables you can get cholera and intestinal worms, to mention just two of the possibilities.

After tea, at which she drank many cups, she excused herself and I had to show her down the corridor to the little room and also our bathroom next to it, both missed on our earlier tour. She came back to me with an expression which said she had not liked what she had just experienced, no surprise really, but I did not expect any comment. However, she said at once that our sanitary arrangements were a horror, to which I agreed, but pointed out that they were quite as bad at the Hardings’ so that this was what I had come to expect in China. Marie announced that this was
to be expected in China, and that Edith Harding, like all the truly rich, was totally mean about spending money, even on essentials. If Richard and I were to entertain, as we must soon do, it was quite impossible that we show our guests to such facilities. In the first place what was essential was a chemical closet of the kind with which her house was equipped and which could be ordered from a shop in Tientsin. She also said that to have water heated by a stove built on to the
of the house was something from the eighteenth century and that even in Peking one could have taps to a basin and a paraffin heater.

By this time I had heard rather too much of Marie’s suggested
and said that we did not wish to do too much to the house since we didn’t know how long we would be in Peking. To this her reply was that one must live in a decently civilised manner wherever one was and why should I not do what she had done when she was first married, which was to demand from her husband that he take the equipping and furnishing of their first home from the money she had brought him as a dowry? It was quite wrong to let a new husband think this money was simply his to do with what he wanted, it had been paid by the bride’s parents to secure the complete comfort of their daughter. I must have been staring at her, for she asked what was the matter?

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